Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving About and Trust

(US Air Force photo, by Michael Dukes, 2012 - photo labeled for reuse)

Terry Little, a project manager with the U.S. Air Force, describes in the following story how he implemented 'moving about' to prevent problems before they happened, or more aptly put, "to detect the smoke and thus eliminate the need to fight the fire.” 

I visited one of the contractors’ suppliers and asked him, “What is the prime contractor making you do, or causing you to do, that you think is worthless or not value-added enough to offset the cost?” A representative from the prime contractor was present, and so there was a little bit of nervousness on the part of the supplier. I told the representative to go get a cup of coffee. I ended up with about three pages full of stuff that the supplier said was causing him headaches. As I was writing all this down, he asked, “What are you going to do with that?” And I said, “Not to worry.”

How did I gain his trust? Well, for one thing, I was there. A government program manager does not normally go to visit the suppliers of a prime contractor. The fact that I was there and willing to spend a whole day looking at his facility, meeting his people, and talking to them about the program and how important their contributions were—that was a big deal to him….

Typically, the government says, “Our contract is with the prime, and we don’t have a contract with these suppliers.” Maybe that’s true, theoretically, but…a large part of the success of the program depends on what the suppliers to my contractor are doing. Am I just going to close my eyes to that?… I believe it’s important to communicate with everybody that’s involved in the outcome of a program.

I gave the three pages to the prime without any explanation other than, “This is what he told me.” A week later, this guy from the prime came back to me and explained how they’d addressed everything on the list except for one thing, and he gave me a detailed and satisfactory explanation as to why the one thing was still important to do.1 

Terry took pains to gain the trust of his suppliers because merely “moving about” does not guarantee that the information collected will be reliable. Indeed, when subordinates or suppliers perceive managers as “corporate policemen,” they develop tactics to conceal or distort information. To ensure that moving about results in essential learning rather than destructive micro-management, it must be accompanied by mutual trust. And that trust is gained by truly listening to people and helping them meet their needs.

Moving about helps foster the project manager’s image as one who is not detached from the actual work and workers, but who is instead invested in the project and well informed, both with respect to the big picture and to the small details. This image, coupled with the respect and credibility gained, may help the project manager influence not only the work (by quickly solving specific problems) but the workers themselves.


1.     Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington DC: The NASA History Series: p. 112-3.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Managing By Moving About

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free reuse, no attribution required

In their book A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin suggest that “the number one productivity problem in America is, quite simply, managers who are out of touch with their people.” Moreover, Peters and Austin claim that the best way for management to be in touch with people is to actually see them face to face. Accordingly, it is crucial for managers to leave the confines of their office and visit with team members at their work place.1

Moving about enables the project manager not only to accomplish the guidelines highlighted in the previous two blogs—that is, to disseminate information and to respond and act with agility—but also to effectively control the progress of their projects. Indeed, when managers believe they can control performance by repeated measurements and detailed progress reports without actual contact achieved by moving about, they fail again and again to meet the projects' objectives. 

As Jerry Madden, a project manager at NASA, explains in the following story, real control comes from mobility:

“A highly regarded vendor had large manufacturing contracts with NASA. Its manufacturing reports listed the items that had been delivered to us. After going through one lengthy report, I went down to the integration floor expecting to see an assembled spacecraft. I found that many assemblies that had been listed were missing.”

Jerry immediately called the vendor to report the errors and was told that they had two sets of paperwork: manufacturing reports for delivered items and integration returns for those items that were sent back for repairs or corrections. Once the item had been shipped back from repairs, the vendor closed out the manufacturing report.

As Jerry realized, “It just goes to show that you can’t rely on the official sources. If a project manager wants effective control, he/she has to always be on the move and ask questions. Indeed, ‘things are seldom what they seem.’”2

From a management-control point of view, the fundamental question is how can such a practice go unnoticed for such a long time that it becomes routine and the entire team accepts it naturally. Yet, one can’t ignore the vast body of empirical research on the frequency and magnitude of information-filtering and distortion within organizations.3

Managers who maintain a stationary position may be forced to make complex judgments with incomplete or misleading information. The “old school” approach to planning and control, which emphasizes remote control as a way of facilitating adherence to the plan, is much like using a thermostat to maintain a predetermined temperature. But in today’s dynamic environment, a more suitable metaphor for project control would be coaching. A coach needs to see the game in order to guide the team, and would hardly be effective if forced to coach from the locker room while receiving statistics via a monitor. In fact, remote control rarely offers real control.


1.      Peters, T.J. and Austin, N. A Passion for Excellence. The Leadership Difference. 1985, New York: Random House: p. 8-9.

2.      Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 86-8.

3.      Bardnt, S.E. Upward communication filtering in the project management environment. Project Management Quarterly 1981; 12(1): p. 39-43.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Respond and Act With Agility

photo by Emilie Reutenauer; permission to reuse under terms of GNU Free Documentation License
and under CreativeCommons

While frequent communication has a vital role in the early identification of problems, coping with unexpected events often demands quick action. Certainly, project managers may need to use creative improvisations to quickly deal with such events. In fact, Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of the Mars Pathfinder flight system, had this to say: “Everybody understands the need for a plan…. But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process.1" However, most unexpected events faced by today’s project managers are not associated with extreme contexts and constraints requiring excessive improvisation (for more on the importance of improvisation, see our blog story from September 2014. What they do require are immediate and agile responses.

During our consulting work with numerous construction project managers, we watched them repetitively respond with agility and take immediate actions to cope with unexpected events that frequently plagued their projects. Here are four brief examples:

The blackout curtains to be installed in a large hospital were supposed to hang somewhere between 1/16" and 1/4" off the floor. In several rooms, the curtains were not meeting the requirement because the floor was not level. After discussing the problem with the project's carpenter, the project manager decided that the inconsistent curtain height could be compensated for by using metal beaded chains and connectors. After receiving approval from the client, the project manager made a quick trip to the local retail store and purchased the parts needed to complete the fix. The issue was resolved in less than four hours.

The steel supplier fabricated the support steel for some air-handling units using outdated drawings. The steel arrived on-site before the mistake was caught. The project manager was left with two choices: Send it back and have the supplier fix the mistake (at no cost), or have the team members fix it in the field. The project manager, along with his superintendent, decided that even though fixing the mistake on-site would cost the team a few hours of extra labor, it was preferable to waiting several days until replacements arrived from the supplier.

The drawings of the equipment did not arrive when expected. The electrical contractor was threatening to stop all his underground rough-in until the information was received. Stopping all the work would have had a serious impact on the schedule. The team met on-site to review what information was still missing. Based on this information, the project manager decided to install junction boxes at the perimeter of the equipment rooms so that a majority of the work could continue, leaving the rooms to be roughed in at a later date.

The plumbing contractor was told to install 1.6 gallons-per-flush toilets in the building. After the original decision to use these toilets had been made, the owner hired a new sustainability manager, who wanted lower-flow toilets instead. There were concerns with the functionality of the lower-flow toilets, so the project manager recommended installing a mock-up of each type of toilet. After testing the mock-up, everyone was in agreement on the preferred fixture. Using the mock-up to resolve the concerns allowed them to avoid a schedule impact.

Why is it crucial to take fast action to resolve such problems? Due to the organizational structure of projects, in which tasks are tightly interconnected, when unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly impacted. For example, affected contractors may decide to move their workforces to other projects, making it difficult to bring them back on time once the problem is resolved.

To be successful in practicing responsive agility, a project manager must operate within an organizational culture that acknowledges the unavoidability of unexpected events. According to Steve Kerr, Chief Learning Officer of General Electric, “The future is moving so quickly that you can’t anticipate it…. We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response…. We will continue to be surprised, but we won’t be surprised that we are surprised.”


1.                   Muirhead, B. and Simon, W.L. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. 1999, New York: HarperBusiness: p. 193.

2.                   Malhotra, Y. “Knowledge management for organizational white waters: an ecological framework.Knowledge Management 1999; 2(1): p. 18-21.